Think of the most put-together traveler you can imagine. James Bond with a tux and a passport, perhaps. Then picture the exact opposite. That’s my dad.
George Kim is the anti-James Bond, the ill-prepared tourist with the giant camera slung around his neck who always seems one turn away from navigational disaster. Once, when I was young, we were on our way home to New Jersey from Connecticut and somehow ended up in the Catskills.
Don’t get me wrong. Dad is a sharp guy even at 72, a retired electrical engineer who now teaches entrepreneurship classes. But his long-standing absent-mindedness, above all other reasons, is why I had put off traveling to my parents’ homeland of Korea despite Dad’s nagging. If you don’t speak Korean, or don’t speak it well (like me), you need a tour guide to experience the country properly, especially beyond Seoul. I finally mustered the courage, and booked the trip. I say courage, because Dad was going to be my guide.
It was a first-time pilgrimage for me — an overdue exploration of my parents’ past and my own heritage as a Korean American. It was also a milestone for my parents. They immigrated to the United States in the late 1960s, but they’ve spent a good chunk of the past seven years of their retirement in South Korea, and I was the first of their four adult children to visit.
The plan was for my father and me to spend about a week seeing Seoul, Busan and Pohang, a port city in the east where my parents make their home. That’s where my father teaches at Handong Global University, a Christian school. My mother, Duckja, would join us there.
A sound plan on paper, but could I survive the guided tour?
Not surprisingly, things didn’t start out well. Dad was two hours late picking me up at the airport when I arrived. We spent another hour trying to find his car in the airport parking lot, even though he had parked it just minutes earlier.
Then we got lost on the way to our Seoul hotel. By the time we checked in, I was hungry and deliriously jet-lagged. Thankfully, it took only 90 minutes or so for Dad to settle on a place to eat.
Discovering the Korea of my parents’ younger days also seemed hard at first. On our first morning in Seoul, Dad and I sat at an outdoor table sipping Starbucks coffee. I scanned the signs around us: Outback Steakhouse, Dunkin’ Donuts, California Pizza Kitchen. Was this Korea or Rockville Pike?
But Dad helped reveal the past. At Seoul Plaza, a green space in the city center, he pointed out a number of round chips in the bricks of the older buildings — bullet holes left over from the Korean War.
Dad was 8 when North Korean tanks under the command of Kim Il Sung rolled down Sejong-daero, a main Seoul thoroughfare, and surrounded the plaza. He recalled the tidy lines of soldiers, the helpless civilians and the popping gunfire as militia from both sides ravaged the city. He and his family fled south, eventually to Busan, until the war ended.
Nearby Gyeongbokgung Palace, one of Korea’s national treasures, has also suffered an unfortunate history. It was all but leveled during the 20th-century Japanese occupation and remains under restoration. To say that Dad still holds grudges against both North Korea and Japan would be an understatement.
A few blocks southeast, off a street called Ujeongguk-ro, behind the spot where street vendors were selling plastic Buddhas and mounds of japchae noodles, was another precious site — the former location of the small house where Dad had lived as a child.
The property has since been leveled, and the site now houses the Central Buddhist Museum. Next door is the Jogye Temple, one of the most famous Buddhist sites in Korea. Dad told me how he and his friends would peer over his backyard fence and mischievously throw rocks at the temple’s roof lights, trying to shatter them. They occasionally succeeded, he said.
I was amazed at his home’s central location. Mom’s childhood home was a few miles away but in the same part of Seoul. The experience was the equivalent of realizing that your parents had once lived in a house that was bulldozed to make room for the Lincoln Memorial.
We wandered around the nearby sites, including the sprawling Changdeokgung Palace and grounds, where my parents went on dates after the war. Dad then took me down some narrow streets where he had walked when he was young. The roads were all dirt back then, he remembered. He would often play with his toys in the mud, or sometimes just with the mud.
I’m the travel opposite of Dad. And, in fairness, it’s not because I’m a seasoned traveler, but because I’m a neurotic one. I came armed with two guidebooks (one in paperback, one on Kindle); all-weather clothing; a cursory knowledge of the language, thanks to months of lessons on Rosetta Stone; power adapters for most of Asia; and a smartphone with what seemed like every travel app in the app store.
As we set off on the five-hour drive to Pohang (Dad rebuffing my offers to take the wheel), the countryside opened up before us. Beyond Seoul, much of Korea is mountainous. The endless hills brought West Virginia to mind. I followed our progress on Google Maps — both out of curiosity and to make sure that we wouldn’t take a wrong turn and end up in China. I peppered Dad with questions about everything I saw.
Space is at a premium in much of the country, and the rolling horizon struck me as a bit claustrophobic. Every piece of developable land is spoken for, often by high-rise apartment buildings, while unsightly high-tension wires crisscross the hilltops like skeins of yarn. The smog is thick in spots, some of it coming from Seoul but much of it from China.
About 50 miles southeast of Seoul, near Chungju, we came upon a rest stop to end all rest stops. It looked like a small mall, with batting cages, a jewelry store and even a decommissioned F-4 Phantom II fighter jet, a Cold War mainstay, displayed in the parking lot.
It was after dark when we finally arrived in coastal Pohang, and we almost made several wrong turns. We joined up with Mom and ate at a tasty, if unique, restaurant called Shabu Hyang, where you boil your own beef soup and roll your own spring rolls.
Pohang’s main drag stretched along a boardwalk that smelled faintly of sulfur. On the not-too-distant horizon, I could make out what appeared to be a large neon city. But Dad explained that this mini-Las Vegas was something else entirely: the Posco steel plant, one of the world’s largest, gussied up to make it more palatable to look at.
The next day, we explored some of the smaller communities around Pohang. We traveled to an oceanside village called Odo-ri, the site of a new church where my Mom, an ordained pastor, preaches.
We were far from Seoul and other cities that Western tourists might think of visiting. In Chilpo-ri, the next village over, we drove on mud-covered cement roads barely wide enough for Dad’s compact car. One street led right up to a fleet of small boats bobbing on the waves. A fisherman nodded hello. The frothy Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea, washing over the shoreline’s dark boulders reminded me of Maine or New Hampshire. But the ubiquitous tsunami warning signs were a reminder that this wasn’t New England.
Later, we headed an hour south to Gyeong-ju. The area is chock-full of temples and sites linked to the ancient Silla Kingdom, one of three that controlled the peninsula around the time of the Roman Empire. At Anapji, a Silla palace site with a tranquil artificial pond, Mom overheard a cluster of people speaking Korean. She told me that they had a thick country accent, but the difference didn’t penetrate my wooden ears.
By the time we reached Busan, my exasperation with Dad was growing again. The booming resort city on Korea’s southern coast, with its spaghetti bowl of streets, didn’t help.
To compensate for Busan’s bustle, Dad drove at half the speed limit. At one point, we somehow found our way into a dead end next to a pier with no railings. The situation compelled Dad to perform a risky K-turn maneuver that brought us just several feet from plunging into the East Sea. And though a torrential rainstorm had descended, Dad had his heart set on more sightseeing. Halfway down the slippery steps to the seaside Haedongyonggung Temple, Mom and I made an executive decision to head back to the car.
Yet for all the logistical headaches, I was fascinated by Busan’s dichotomy.
In the eastern part of the city was Haeundae Beach, Korea’s answer to South Beach — night clubs, designer shops and sleek hotels surrounded a manicured strand. In the middle of it all was the huge Shinsegae Centum City department store, which claims to be the largest in the world. The store has 14 floors that feature a supermarket, a short-track ice rink and a driving range, so the boast appears to be legit.
To the west, across the bay, an older Busan beckoned. The sidewalks were livelier and the streets more disorderly. There was no manicured beach; rusty trawlers crowded the water. In place of designer clothing stores, elderly vendors sold seaweed and other food from the backs of pickup trucks.
Jagalchi Fish Market, a pungent, chaotic shock to the senses, anchored this side of Busan. We walked past crowded, smelly stands selling mackerel, tuna, octopus, eel, sea urchins, oysters and some of the largest crabs I’ve ever seen. Vendors sliced up that morning’s catch and served it up on plates along with fresh wasabi. I could have easily spent hours there with Dad and Mom, snapping photos of the fishy maelstrom.
But Jagalchi would be the last stop. I had a bullet train to catch. Before long, I’d be speeding on the KTX back to Seoul and eventually home.
At the train station, I hugged Mom goodbye. Then Dad and I went inside. He carried my bag to the ticket counter, made sure I was on the right train and helped me find my track.
We headed to the main hall for our final goodbyes. As he walked off, I followed him with my eyes until he was out of sight.
All at once, Dad’s annoyances didn’t matter much anymore. They were as permanent as fog.
And that’s when I realized that he had been, in fact, the perfect guide.
Kim is mobile/tablet editor at
The Washington Post.